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Djokovic looks to regain his mojo

Over the past couple of years, there have been persisting physical niggles. But most conspicuous is the change in Djokovic’s attitude, something that he was always admired by both his peers and tennis pundits the world over, writes Sridhar Venkatesh.

 Sridhar Venkatesh |  2017-05-20 15:18:05.0  |  New Delhi

Djokovic looks to regain his mojo

The years 2015 and 2016 were, for all intents and purposes, a purple patch in the career of Serbian tennis phenomenon Novak Djokovic. Of the 16 singles tournaments that he participated in, Djokovic won an impressive 11, three of these being Grand Slam tournaments, and finished runner-up in the other five tournaments. His whirlwind season began after winning the 2015 Australian Open, defeating British arch rival Andy Murray in four sets in the final. Other than his loss to a resilient Stan Wawrinka in the final of that year's French Open, Djokovic's season was fairly exceptional. Losing to Wawrinka at Roland Garros meant that Djokovic was denied a singles Grand Slam in 2015. He did, however, go on to beat Roger Federer in the finals of the Wimbledon and the US Open, and the next four tournaments as well in 2015.

That year, he also earned a record breaking amount of prize money, winning well over $21 million. Djokovic had begun 2015 at the top of the ATP Men's Singles ranking and finished the season the same way, that too with a record number of points. He was also the only player in the 2015 season to have beaten every other top 10 ATP player.

2016 began in a somewhat similar fashion, after he successfully defended the Australian Open title by once again defeating Murray, this time over only three sets. Subsequently, Djokovic went on to win four more tournaments, including the French Open where Murray once again returned empty-handed in a four-setter.

However, this was when his downward slide was to begin. After winning the much coveted French Open – the only Grand Slam trophy missing from his shelf – in June that year, an ambitious Djokovic went to the All-England Club in July 2016, looking forward to win a third consecutive singles Wimbledon Championship. His plans did not come to fruition unfortunately, as he went crashing out in only the third round, after 28th seeded American Sam Querrey defeated him 6-7, 1-6, 6-3, 6-7.

After missing a chance to win the year's second major tournament, Djokovic focused on representing his nation at the 31st Summer Olympics, hosted by Rio de Janeiro in August. Shockingly, the Serbian was ousted by Argentinean Juan Martin del Potro in the very first round in straight sets. This turned out to be the beginning of Djokovic's bad form, as he lost in all following tournaments.

Soon after the Rio Olympics, a determined Djokovic entered the Flushing Meadows in New York, hoping to win the US Open for the second consecutive time. Djokovic looked like his old, confident self as he walked over all his opponents to set up a mouth-watering final clash with Swiss dark horse Stan Wawrinka. But defying all expectations, Wawrinka beat the Serbian star in four sets to win his first ever US Open title.

Djokovic subsequently went on to lose the next three ATP tournaments – Shanghai Rolex Masters, BNP Paribas Masters and ATP World Tour Finals. As a result, he fell to the second spot in the ATP men's singles ranking in November 2016, a position where he has been stuck since.

Djokovic's rise to the top of the ATP rankings was not meteoric. It was a result of perseverance and hard work for over three years, when German legend Boris Becker joined his coaching team as head coach in 2013. Becker worked alongside Djokovic's long time head coach Marián Vajda, who had decided to take some time off for personal reasons. Becker was mainly tasked with helping Djokovic prevail in major tournaments, as the latter believed he lacked the "mental edge in the final stages of those tournaments." Djokovic's collaboration with Becker did produce the desired results and improvements that the Serbian was missing for some time.

In December 2016, Becker's three-year contract ran out and it was decided not to renew it. Djokovic parted ways with the German, ostensibly on amicable terms, due to a series of unexpected losses on the lawn. Djokovic made headlines again in May 2017, after he decided to sack his entire coaching team, including Vajda, his mentor for over 10 years, and the support staff. On his website, Djokovic said they had "decided to part ways after a detailed analysis of the game, achieved results in the previous period, and also after discussing private plans of each team member." He expressed no bitterness and acknowledged their contribution to his rise to the top, calling them his "family and that will never change."

The Serbian did, however, rightly pointed out in his statement that he needed to "make a change, and to introduce new energy in order to raise his level of play." There are indeed several changes that Djokovic needs to bring to his game to change the narrative. Over the past couple of years, there have been persisting physical niggles. But most conspicuous is the change in Djokovic's attitude, something that he was always admired for both by his peers and tennis pundits around the world. Gone are the days when Djokovic, exuding a boyish charm, would imitate Maria Sharpova's idiosyncrasies before he would begin his serve, just to entertain the crowd. The Djokovic that we see now seems to have realised that he now bears the weight of the world on his shoulders and plays with a less carefree attitude than he did four-five years ago.

Of course, it is now neither possible nor advisable for him to turn the clock back and return to his former cheerful and glee self. On the bright side though, Djokovic isn't languishing in the ATP rankings. His drop in form is merely a setback, from which he can rise once he sets his mind to it.
In an effort to get back his mojo, Djokovic has chosen to dump his longtime coach and friends. It may not be a panacea to all his problems, but it still is a start. Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal lost his way a few times, but is now seemingly on the road to recovery. After bringing fellow Spaniard Carlos Moyá into his coaching team, Nadal seems to have reignited the spark in him. His marathon five-setter against Federer at the 2017 Australian Open final turned the clock back to a time when the two virtually were the only two contenders for any major tournament. The Swiss maestro came out on top that night, but it showed that Nadal had indeed become a markedly improved player.

Nadal is also on the way to earn back his moniker of the 'King of Clay', after winning three clay court ATP tournaments this year – the Monte-Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open and Madrid Open. The Spaniard seems to be returning to his old form, but Djokovic currently seems a shadow of his former self. And the Serbian needs to bring about a change in his game and attitude to again be a strong contender in Grand Slam competitions.

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